Saturday, August 6, 2011

People from The Mountains -1- One Fine Day

He was sitting on the top of a bus when he first saw her. He saw her before she saw him. She was with a companion. A tall brunette. You could say, they had just met on the road. Both seemed to be people who would pack and unpack their backpacks a few times before they decide to stuff everything in anyways.

She saw him as she stood trying to figure which of the many old green and white buses she had to take to go over the mountains, over the Rohtang. She was not too sure she wanted to be travelling on top of any of them and walked towards the far end with the brunette trailing slightly behind.

The morning mountain air was crisp. The bus stand had been washed clean by the early morning showers. Little puddles with little ripples as the buses trundled past, engines struggling to breathe in the thin air. The man next to him tried to light a beedi. Two match sticks, the wind blew out before the end glowed a bright orange as the man drew in a deep drag. A couple, possibly Israeli with Star of David tattoos and dreadlocks looked like they had smoked something stronger than just a beedi.

A sharp rasping voice from below cut in. "Uthro saalon!! This bus not moving if people on top sitting. Bus company very strict. Sometime people falling into mountainside and dying."
The conductor went into the bus having made what he thought was a fairly impressive speech... in English.
No one moved. Ten minutes, the world went around it's axis, slowly , thoughtfully.

The sharp rasping voice started again."What I tell..". Only to be cut off by the earthy pahaadi accented Hindi speaking driver who sauntered in from the chai shop with his still steaming glass of chai. His voice had the same quality as the vapour strongly rising from his glass.
"A man died a month ago. Left behind a woman and a few kids. The driver and conductor are in jail now.If you dont get off. This doesn't move. ", he said pointing his tea glass at the bus. The steam silently melting into the morning chill against a dusty bright movie poster.
The driver then pointed his tea glass hand at him and said. "Tell the bloody phirangis what I just said .All of you get down and wait for the next one coming in from Rekong Peo".
Everyone climbed down in a few minutes. Some more reluctant than others.

The bus from Rekong Peo silently slid into the other end of the bus stand as everyone was getting off this bus and before he was able to get in, it was full. He threw his backpack on the roof in between a bunch of vegetable sacks and got into the already full bus.

She was there in the last seat by the door and a dirty window. He climbed in. People walked in. He let them past leaning against a cold steel pillar by the door. The floor of the bus was muddy.

The conductor walked up to him.
"How long to Keylong?", he inquired.
"The road is quite bad, just a slush stream at places on the top.Should be about 8 hours tops"
"How much?"
"8 hours I said"
"No. I was asking about the ticket."
"Here you go. Standing is not fun"
"Hope your back holds up. You city folk", he said and walked down to the brunette.

"Two tickets to Keylong"
The brunette said something into her ear. She replied.In French. She had a lilting faraway tone. She shuffled for a while, opening her passport pouch and then her wallet before putting together her 120 for her ticket.She smiled sometimes into a distant void as she talked.
The bus weaved its way out of the town. Slowly at first. Slower still later. Little pockets of conversations had started in the meanwhile. A vegetable seller introducing himself to a Slovenian father and son. The Israelis quietly whispering to themselves. An old man complaining to his neighbour about the Israelis. A quiet looking short man was asking a tall Dutch lady if she would marry him.
He stood against the pillar for a while. Every time the tyres drowned into a pot hole of indeterminate depth, the passengers at the back were tossed up like vegetables being tossed for a salad by a careless tired chef.

One hour.They were climbing now. Someone pointed to a carcass of a jeep fallen off a cliff and everyone craned their necks ..some ...only because the neighbour was craning his neck.
She woke up the brunette, who had dozed off and pointed wordlessly to the jeep.
The brunette said something. She said nothing. The brunette dozed off again.

The road was better now and they were making good time.
One hour.Still climbing. The honking was conspicuous by it's absence.

He had just found the sweet spot against the pillar he had now warmed up and that was when the brakes slammed. Someone swore. He was sprawled against the door before he knew what had happened. Almost at her feet.
The driver was leaning outside the window and questioning the parentage of a jeep driver coming downhill. The jeep driver was responding in kind . He stood up righting himself. He felt a vague dull pain in his shoulder where he had landed against the door.

"Are you alright?". The same distant lilting tone.
"Yup. The road is..ummm.. quite bad". he said in an asphyxiated voice of someone who was waiting to talk to someone with a opening line in mind, but had to change it suddenly on being spoken to.
He certainly didn't sound anything like he had wanted to sound with the opening line.
She smiled brightly and looked away as you would look away from someone you wanted to make conversation to , but just figured that the other person probably didn't.
He wanted to tell her, that it wasn't that way. He didn't. He couldn't.

He sat on the floor by the doorway. The wind had dried the sludge into little misshapen crumble cookies. He felt them crumble as he sat on them.
The bus was now behind an army convoy. It sure seemed that it would be there for a while as the road had now dramatically narrowed.
The bus stopped. The whole world as far as he could see had stopped.

"Landslide". Someone said.
Slowly people started getting off. The old man, went to the rock scree behind a boulder after much looking about. He came back his fly still undone.
The Israelis, got down to smoke.
She fumbled into her pack and came up with a crumpled cardigan, careful not to disturb the sleeping brunette, contorting herself in the little space she had to put it on. He was sure that they had just met on the road.
He got down to stretch his legs. His shoulder was a bit numb too. He jumped across the slush missing his target and splashing into the muck. The mountains are never a bad place to get stuck in he thought as he took in the view of the valley in mid summer.

The greenest it would be any time of the year. Glacier melt slowly pushing it's way down the valleys. Stopping to pass on a secret package to the trees it happened to meet along the way. The trees would then blow up the bounty in a brief shriek of joy..A joy, green in colour. Only to slowly wither away leaf by leaf in the not too far winter. He vaguely pointed his camera to capture the valley mid-shriek.

She had gotten off the bus too. She walked across . Uphill of where he was.
He asked the driver who was squatting by the slush on the side of the road how long they would be here.
The driver shrugged and asked if he had a cigarette.
He said he didnt . The driver shrugged some more.
She took out a pack of almonds . She ate them staring into a valley with defocussed eyes.

She had pretty hands.
What makes some hands prettier than others?

He continued to stare at her hands as she stared into the valley. Keeping time by the delightful arc of her hand as it moved from somewhere in her lap to her slightly chaffed wind blown lips.

The crowds were now starting to head back to their buses. The rubble had been cleared.
The Israelis had just lit a cigarette. One of them looked peeved that he had to waste a perfectly good stick because someone cleared the rubble a bit too early. He seemed to be a someone who thought the whole damn world was unfair anyways. He was the last to get in.
He let the guy past as he stood against his once warm,now cold steel pillar.

The brunette was up now and was trying to take some pictures of the valley and the mountains on the other side placing the camera unsteadily in front of her nose as the bus swayed.
Soon, they were at the top. It was a time somewhere between early evening and late afternoon and now the bus started to go downhill trying not to careen into the valley and join a few other unlucky brethren rusting in the scree far below.
Everyone had their cameras out. The Japanese far in the front respectfully poking their long lenses past their neighbours noses apologising every time they fell against them when the bus braked.
Had had his out too. The brunette was sleeping again. He was busy for a bit trying to adjust his light meter settings every time the bus went in and out of shadows of the mountains .

Their eyes met. She half smiled.
He was not sure if she had smiled. He smiled and looked away not sure why he did that .
When he next turned to her with a rehearsed opening line,she had already closed her eyes, her fingers gripping the window pane pretending to be asleep
The evening light was settling softly across her tightly stretched face.
Yes.She was pretending to be asleep.
As the bus turned a bend , he saw her hand, still gripping the dirty pane. One brightly painted red nail glowing in the warm light.
One glowing red nail, framed against the mountains. Like a wayward sun who had lost his way across the sky. He could see her fingers tighten and relax as the bus banked around bends, but her eyes remained shut. Her face remained taut.
He closed his eyes too. Letting the sunlight warm his eyelids. He found the sweet spot on his warm pillar again to rest his back on. And watched floating tendrils in a red sea through his closed eyes.

"Bon Jour", he would say when she opened her eyes.
"Bon Jour", she would say with a smile . Adding. "Parlez vous Français ?!"
"Nope. Nothing beyond 'Ça Va'. Ça Va?"
"Hehe. Am fine. Where you from by the way"
"From the south. Somewhere warmer. And you"
"From Paris.I've never been to the south of India. I'd like to though."
"You should. It's pretty in parts, ugly in parts, interesting in most parts."
"One can say that about most places in the world. Dont you think so?"
"Nope. Wouldn't say that about Paris."
"You've been there?"
"Yes and no."
"And that means?"
"Was there for only a weekend? Almost doesn't count considering Paris"
"You liked it?"
"Hemingway didn't lie, when he said that Paris is a movable feast...Ugly was sure missing there"
"A movable feast....."
"Ya. Difficult to explain it without spoiling the orange tinted connotations that the phrase puts in your head"
"I kinda get what you say. I would say 'Yes' if someone asked me if Paris was a movable feast too I guess"
"You read Hemingway?"
"Which one?"
"Something about a civil war in Spain"
"For whom the bell tolls?"
"Yup. The same one"
"It's like listening to the Blues isnt it ? Reading Hemingway.",he said.
She mulled over that for a moment.
"Not a bad way to put it. Though I look at it like watching people at the Notre Dame on a bright Summer day."
He mulled over it for a moment.
" Not a bad way to put it either", he smiled into her eyes.
"You have pretty hands"
"Really", she said looking at them,"Nobody told me that"
"Now someone did"
"I'll remember that" .She laughed from into his eyes.
"Not a bad day at all isn't it?"
"A fine day, monsieur. A fine day" ,she said looking into the distant mountains. "It isnt the same as Not a Bad day"
"A fine day it is , mmeslle"

The light was already fading as the bus made its way down the last stretch.

The damn brakes again.
They both woke up with a jolt.

Their eyes met again.
He half smiled at her. "Bon Jour", he said gingerly.
"Bon jour" , she said, not exactly like she had said a while ago when both where floating down the mountainside in the warm light with the bright nail framed against the evening mountains.Eyes closed.

She had gone from pretending to be asleep to a point in space-time she may not have been awake, somewhere during the descent.
She looked at him and started to say something.

She took a little too long.

He had already decided that it was probably not the right thing to have said. Should he have said "Bon Soir"? He looked away into the mountains.
He looked up. He saw her eyes closed. The window closed . Eyes shut.Hands pulled into her crumpled cardigan. Face taut.
He smiled into the evening and waited for Keylong to arrive listening to Norwegian Wood looping over and over again in his earphones.

"It was not a bad day". He thought.
"It could have been a fine day", he sighed and walked off the bus to find a place to stay for the night.